Is Your School Like a Glow Stick?

Originally post on the ERT website

While reading a post on The Student Affairs Collaborative, a blog on higher education, I got a very vivid image in my head. The title, Break the System to Remake the System, made me think of a glow stick instantly. I like this image analog for several reasons. First, I relate to the idea that what we need to shine, as schools, is already inside of us. To me, that’s an idea that just about every teacher already embraces. Yes, you need to hire well, but you’ll almost never be in a situation where you get to replace every teacher in a building; training and cultivation is the best answer to improvement.


How does a glow stick work? Well, if you’ve never been to a fair or theme park (or a rave I suppose) then you need to know about glow sticks. They are clear plastic tubes with two luminescent chemicals trapped inside, but separated by a thin artificial membrane. When you “break” the tube by holding it between your two hands and bending, you cause the chemicals to mix, thus causing a safe exocharmic(exuding excitement and entertainment) reaction which makes the stick glow fluorescent.

Now that I’ve made you relive a time when you were overwhelmed by large crowds of children wielding cheese-filled pretzels, I’ll get back to idea of education I’m trying to get at. The glow stick: you need to break it in order for it to work. Is public education the same? More specifically, what can we define as “breaking” education? Will Race to the Top “break” it? Did NCLB already break it (or will it be revealed as broken in 2014)? Will it break slowly over time or instantaneously? Are you risking breaking your school by providing new ideas? These are all questions worth considering.


I can’t pass up a good diagram. Haven’t you always wondered about glow sticks?

Second, if we do “break” education and all the evident faults and possible strengths are fluorescently illuminated for us, how do we act in response? Is there something contained within the action that broke it, or is it still external and unknown? Before I veer off into a metacognitive or philosophical cliff, I want to focus this topic into one coherent question:

What does a “broken” education system look like?

When any large change is brought about in a system, it could very easily be seen as broken in the pejorative sense of the word, because it is no longer preforming functions as it did previously. Change can be a scary thing if you fixate on the unknown; you have to  look inward and concentrate on what goodness is hiding inside your school that can’t be let out until you break the tube.
My answer to what a broken system looks like: noisy, shifting, luminescent, radiating light and energy. I want my school to have such energy and I want us to visibly share it with the world. We should hold our glow stick up to illuminate the darkness and understand that even though it will not last forever (a dying glow stick is a traumatic realization for a small child) we know how and why we must break another one if we expect to see.
I’m interested in hearing from you: Is your school like a glow stick? What is waiting to shine through? Is a system broken from outside forces or made from what’s inside?

2 thoughts on “Is Your School Like a Glow Stick?

  1. I love the analogy, but what eventually happens to a glow stick? It stops glowing. That part of the analogy makes me nervous in that once it is broken, we make changes and new initiatives begin to shine through the “breakage” then it slowly begins to fade, as so many new initiatives do…I would want to come up with a way to describe the glow stick analogy in a positive “light” rather than a negative one when the glow begins to fade away. Any thoughts on how to describe the dimming of the glow?

  2. Thanks for the response, I hear what you’re saying. The metaphor could connote that ideas burn out eventually. My response is: they do.

    Life is not about avoiding changes but dealing with them. I think there’s a Rick DuFour quote out there that uses the term “continual disquiet” about change in PLCs.

    Metaphors do have their limit, but they bring up otherwise interesting questions. When te glow stick fades you’ve got to break another one out, dig for more ideas with your staff.

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